DIVERSITY + INCLUSION
Did transphobia win JK Rowling the Russel Prize 2020?
24th March 2021
Last December, JK Rowling was announced as a winning recipient of the annual Russel Prize for 2020, for her controversial essay on sex and gender, which, when first released, triggered public outcry due to the transphobic nature of the piece. The Harry Potter author uses the piece to open up about her experiences of domestic abuse and sexual assault, appearing to use these experiences to back up claims that the rise of trans activism is having an adverse effect on the protections for women in similar circumstances. The piece focus on the idea that without the need for surgery or hormone treatment to obtain a gender recognition certificate, the door is open for more men to come through and perpetrate further crimes against these women and others.
The Russell Prize, established in 2017 and named after Bertrand Russell, is awarded annually to celebrate journalism and writing that honours the three main virtues associated with Russell’s work; plain language, pertinent erudition, and finally, moral force. BBC media editor Amol Rajan, while reviewing the works of the prize winners, claimed the reasoning behind the inclusion of JK Rowling as a recipient of the award, despite the claims of transphobia, was for her use of plain language, which made the essay clear, concise, and easily understood by the reader. However, with moral force being the third virtue behind the criteria for the award, and with the piece very clearly appearing to lack much of the required ethical energy which is considered so important for the award, it becomes apparent that those awarding the prize must believe Rowling’s reasonings behind this attack on trans women, to be ethical, viewing it as a justified piece.
“While looking deeper into Rowling’s wording and language use, it is clear that despite her use of plain and simple language to make her points, she still words her sentences in a way that shields what can be read as deeply rooted transphobia”
While there are claims that the prize is being awarded on the base that it makes use of simple and plain English, a valued virtue of Russell, it contradicts the third virtue due to its poor ethical stance towards the classification of trans women as women. Claims can be made that the piece clearly and concisely states a hope for the safety of trans women through the line “So I want trans women to be safe.” however, the ending of this sentence “At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe”, differentiates what she considers as ‘natal’ women from trans women. In doing so, the piece gives the impression that there is a separation between both groups, and suggests that Rowling does not view trans women as women, or as vulnerable to the same experiences had by ‘natal’ women.
While looking deeper into Rowling’s wording and language use, it is clear that despite her use of plain and simple language to make her points, she still words her sentences in a way that shields what can be read as deeply rooted transphobia, as the differentiating of trans women from ‘natal’ women is a long running transphobic ideology, and the hidden suggestion that trans women are simply men angling to perpetrate crimes against women through accessing women’s bathrooms is in itself transphobic.
As such, by ignoring both the lack of morality or ethical writing throughout the essay, as well as the deeper meanings behind the supposed plain and simple language, it can become evident to many readers that Rowling’s piece cannot simply be awarded such a prize while clearly lacking the necessary virtues associated with it. Although we cannot claim that Rowling was awarded the Russel Prize as a result of transphobia, we must recognise that her nomination for an award involving ‘moral force’ was done with full knowledge of the transphobic ideology contained within her piece.
Photo by Ken Schwartz on Flickr